Monday, January 4, 2010

The Long Road Home

I finally got home to Beijing at 2:45am after spending 11 hours at the Haikou Airport because the flight back was delayed for eight hours.

My friend and I thought we'd spend a few days in Bo'ao, an island 120km from Haikou for some rest and relaxation -- which we did get -- but the journey to and from Bo'ao was tedious and could have been stressful, but we were too tired to get worked up about it.

Yesterday morning we got up early to catch at 12:50pm flight. That entailed arranging a taxi ahead of time to take us to the airport in two hours, with two hours extra to check in.

The taxi ride was just over an hour and a half and we zipped along the highway which passed by lots of rice paddies, farmers wearing straw hats and water buffalo. Strangely enough we also saw a trio of Africans walking along the highway exit which was an odd sight for this southern Chinese province. We wondered what that was all about. They wore shorts and T-shirts but no umbrella despite the light showers and overcast weather.

When we arrived at the airport, our flight on Hainan Airlines was not shown on the board yet, but about 20 minutes later it was, and delayed until 2:50pm. Apparently there was heavy snow in Beijing and that was the reason for the delay.

So we ate lunch -- Hainan chicken with rice served in a coconut shell, and sipped from a young coconut to pass the time.

We passed through security and waited at the gate. The plane was not there yet, but actually arrived around 2pm. Those Beijing passengers disembarked and the plane was cleaned and refueled.

When 2:50pm came, we started to board the flight.

Then we sat on the plane for an hour, as the staff announced we had no departure time set. So the flight attendants started handing us meals to eat.

After those were eaten and drinks were drunk, it was announced that since there was still no departure time that it would be better if we disembarked and waited at the gate. I had never experienced that before, sitting on a plane and then asked to get out.

And we waited. And waited. And waited.

People started wandering towards the desk and asking the man manning the desk when we would fly, but he could not give an answer. As the messenger, he had to wait until he heard from the airline. When would that be? He did not know.

And we waited. And waited. And waited.

I don't know how we passed the time, as we didn't want to wander too far if there was an announcement. We sat there, not tired enough to fall asleep (there was no way to get comfortable) and getting hungry.

A flight to Shanghai was supposed to leave from our gate, but was moved to another one... and same with a flight to Wuhan later in the evening.

Meanwhile our plane just sat there, lights out.

More people got anxious and started complaining that there were young children and elderly passengers, and that people had a right to know what was going on. A large Frenchman in a lime green short-sleeve polo shirt, wearing shorts and a full beard pounded on the desk many times demanding to have more information. At one point I acted as his translator. He couldn't understand why there was no customer service. I had to explain that this was China... that the travel industry has only grown in the last few years and that customer service had not caught on yet. He shook his head in disbelief.

The anger level of the other passengers came in waves and never really rose much higher until another Chinese woman shouted at the Hainan Airlines man and her husband tried to drag her away out of embarassment. She refused to budge.

Meanwhile other airlines' flights to Beijing had been cancelled and we thought the probability of ours being cancelled too was very high. Apparently the snow was coming down hard in the capital and although we could fly there, it didn't necessarily mean we could land. However, the most annoying part was that the airline refused to decide to cancel the flight, leaving us all stranded at the gate and wondering what would happen.

This demonstrated that Hainan Airlines and many others had no proper decision-making process in place, and no contingency plans decided ahead of time in times of extreme weather conditions. This should have been determined ages ago, and staff knowing and following the procedure instead of just telling passengers that they didn't know. Passengers should only be expected to wait a certain period of time and in the meantime prepare to put them up in a hotel to wait out the snow.

In the meantime, how could Beijing, with its three terminals, not be able to handle just over seven inches of snow? If you build fancy terminals, you have to have the equipment to service them, and that includes snow removal equipment. While there has been less snow in recent years, there is still snow in Beijing that needs to be cleared.

We had been told a dinner would be given to us (as a lunch had been earlier too) at 7pm, but it wasn't until almost 8pm did carts of lunch boxes arrive. We scrambled to get food, which consisted of a boiled egg, rice with a dash or soy sauce, deepfried chunks of chicken, a sausage and cabbage, with coconut juice to wash it all down. As we ate, we saw the airline crew get onto the plane which raised our hopes again and we ate faster.

And indeed the electronic board at the gate said we were boarding, though the time still said 12:50pm.

We boarded again at 8:45pm, the staff member ripping a piece off our boarding cards as he had already taken the other stub. But then we didn't take off right away as there were still some missing passengers. I had heard some may have even left the gate and gone home.

But about 20 minutes later our plane left the gate and headed for the runway. Some complained to the flight attendants on board that since we were arriving late in Beijing there would be no public transportation available and would the airline be responsible for that? She couldn't answer this question, but tried to calm down the frustration the best she could.

Overall it was a smooth flight, and as we approached Beijing I could see huge patches of snow, and snow on the roads, with hardly any cars on them.

We landed safely, much to the delight of passengers who clapped in appreciation. However, we parked in the middle of nowhere and had to deplane to waiting buses outside. When they saw the Frenchman in the green short-sleeve polo shirts and shorts walk down the stairs, everyone laughed -- did he not know Beijing was cold?

I finally got my luggage and headed to the taxi stand. The young men in charge of herding taxis said there weren't many cars all day. How were we supposed to get one at 2am?

But luckily they came a few mintes after the other and we managed to get in and have a safe ride back home too. Not many people were on the roads which were hardly cleared either.

It turns out 90 percent of flights from Beijing Capital International Airport were cancelled or severely delayed, with only one of three runways working at one point.

We were too lucky to make it home.

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